Friday, July 29, 2011

It Came From Beneath the Sea

The 50s Monster Mash Blogathon is an event dedicated to classic movie monsters presented by the site Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear. For a complete list of participating blogs, visit the host site. The list of blog posts will go up July 28-August 2, 2011.

first seen online via YouTube

Monster movies probably had more appeal to me as a kid than at any other time in my life. Part of it was certainly getting to see them on free TV every once in awhile - during holidays, for instance. I think the best thing about watching those old, low-budget flicks as a kid was that they engaged your imagination a little bit more than similar movies today. As disappointed as I was with Super 8, I can at least appreciate the attempt JJ Abrams made to make a modern monster movie in that old-school spirit.

In watching It Came From Beneath the Sea last night, I thought about the differences in how movies like this were made, then and now. For one thing, this movie took its sweet time - not that it was boring, but it didn't feel the need to deliver the goods right away. There were a great deal of interior scenes - the inside of a submarine, scientists in their lab, conferences with military officials, dinner at a restaurant - probably the result of a small budget.
Also, science is taken very seriously. I liked how the scientist characters in Sea are shown as true professionals - regular people, not nerds or oddballs. We see them investigating the mystery of the sea monster, working with the military in combating the creature and taking more than a few risks to life and limb.

And then there's special effects. Sea was one of the many sci-fi/fantasy movies featuring monsters created by the legendary effects wizard Ray Harryhausen. Inspired, as many filmmakers were, by the original King Kong, as well as sci-fi literature of the 1930s, he designed a wide variety of movie monsters throughout his long career, and brought them to life on the big screen using stop-motion animation. Harryhausen's body of work includes such Saturday afternoon matinee classics as Mighty Joe Young, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts, and the original Clash of the Titans.

The other day I spoke about how performance-capture effects are reshaping the way modern movies look. There's something about stop-motion animation used in live-action films, however, that always creeped me out. No matter how realistic computer-generated effects have become, on some level, I believe, we're always aware of them as being effects. I've found this to be true in Super 8 and movies like it. It's not necessarily a bad thing, especially given the levels CGI have reached, but I think you do have to consciously surrender yourself to the illusion.

With stop-motion puppetry, it's different. Because these are physical objects interacting with actual people, it has a realism that can be unsettling - and to be honest, I'm not just talking about Harryhausen monsters. As a kid, I'd see stop-motion animated shorts on Sesame Street or The Electric Company that would freak me out sometimes, which makes me think that the kind of fear this stirs may be an instinctual one.

Anyway, no one was better at it than Harryhausen. In Sea, when the sea monster crushes the Golden Gate Bridge, it looks real. It has a physicality you can see that is different (I won't say better) from most computer-generated effects. Although give CGI its due - in the hands of masters like Spielberg or Lucas or Jackson or Cameron, it can be breathtakingly convincing, and as more filmmakers use it, it can only improve over time, and performance-capture will play a great part in that, I believe.

One more note about Harryhausen: I watched a colorized version of Sea. It turns out that Harryhausen helped produce this version, one of several movies he worked on that were recently re-released for DVD in color. I thought the colors looked fine - nothing was especially bright or shiny; if anything, the colors seemed just restrained enough to be believable. Having never seen the original black and white version, I can't make any direct comparisons.

I feel I should also mention that Sea actually bothers to present a decent female character who's way more than just a damsel in distress or eye candy. Don't be fooled by the movie poster: Faith Domergue (who also made This Island Earth, Cult of the Cobra and The Atomic Man in the same year as Sea) is competent, clever and authoritative in this film. It is a shame, however, that the filmmakers felt the need to saddle her with a lame romantic subplot with the naval captain who works with her that adds absolutely nothing to the story. Still, I liked that her character held her own amidst all the men in the story.


  1. I love this film, or at least my memories of it since I haven't seen it in many years and then only the black and white version. Ray Harryhausen was the greatest special effects man. He was an amazing creative genius.

    Thanks for a great re-cap of a film I really want to see again.

  2. I totally agree about practical effects. They age better than CGI and work well because something is actually physically there. I'm not completely against CGI, but there is a time and place for everything. As I said on another entry in this blogathon, I really gotta see some Ray Harryhausen movies now!

  3. Only one thing bothers me. If there's a giant, ticked-off octopus on the loose, there is no way I am going to the beach!

    I do like the shots of the crowds running in terror. Part of me thinks it must be fun to be an extra in a monster movie. That is, the part of me that still has my eyes open and isn't cowering behind a cushion.

    Very enjoyable, thoughtful piece on "It Came from Beneath the Sea".

  4. Saw this as a kid when it came out. At one point, a tentacle removes somebody who is walking along the beach. I found myself checking the sand for sucker marks the next few times that I went down there.

    That poor old Golden Gate Bridge. In Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus, in a surprise move, the octopus doesn't get to drag it down. Instead, mega shark bites it in half.

  5. I've always been unsettled by stop-motion animation and I think you have finally helped me to understand why. The fact that it is really happening, though perhaps on a different scale, makes it more visceral than something that was rigged up with a computer. That first pic. had me sold on the movie! I loved your thought-provoking review. Nice work.

  6. I totally agree with you about liking old school special effects more. One genre where it REALLY becomes a hassle is the superhero genre. Having recently seen "Thor" and "Captain America" I have to say that CGI is like alcohol...a little might make the party more interesting...but too much will poison and kill you. That's one of the reasons why I love Nolan's Batman films so much...he used CGI as sparsely as possible.

    Anyway...thanks for a great review! I'm glad that you were able to get it posted!

  7. Lovely appreciation of the Harryhausen effects. I can't help thinking that the whole "Special effects today are 100% better" way of thinking leads to some lazy, lazy CGI work. And yay for a decent female character.

    Thanks for this interesting review. It's nice to get a more personal, emotional look at what these movies mean. And why we still remember them.

  8. I'll add an "amen" to the chorus praising Harryhausen's effects. The man and his monsters had more influence on me as a moviegoer than just about anybody in the business--when I hear jaded newbies complain about the SFX in these films looking "fakey" I weep inside because they'll never experience the sense of majesty and wonder I did when I was young (I still think King Kong is the greatest monster movie of all time and anyone who calls those effects hokey can just step outside.)

    I need to revisit It Came from Beneath the Sea soon -- I bought it on that Harryhausen set that contains 20 Million Miles to Earth and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, so it shouldn't be too hard to locate.

  9. I think it's a bit unfortunate that CGI has so completely taken over effects work in Hollywood. When it's done well, it looks terrific, and I'm grateful for all the hard work that goes into it, but there ought to be a place for other varieties of effects work as well. Nathanael brought up Chris Nolan's Batman films - perfect example right there.

  10. I haven't seen this one, but I've seen other Harryhausen-SFX films and you make a great point: with stop-motion animation, there really is something there to interact with. Plus, Harryhausen's effects are so astonishing because he really brings out a creature's flesh-blood-bone physicality. Supposedly, his mentor, Willis O'Brien (who animated King Kong), advised Harryhausen to study anatomy, and it paid off. Thanks for your excellent post and insightful comments - glad to know this is on Youtube.

  11. I was lucky; it went up on YouTube about a month ago!

  12. I was surprised at quality of the color on the recent Harryhausen discs. It's not awful by any means. It does, unfortunately, look kind of like the washed out color of an old film, but them's the breaks, I guess.

  13. There are places where it seems a bit paler than perhaps it should be, but I never found the color to be a distraction.


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